Paul Griffiths on Tonstad’s Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics
Tonstad’s book is a concise, clear, lively, and provocative introduction to its topic, as well as a contribution to it. It’s rare for a book to be both, and even more so when the book’s as short as this one. I’m grateful to her for having written it, and have been stimulated by reading it, as I hope this review will show. Anyone interested in the current contours of queer theory and queer theology should read it; those already imbued will benefit, and those who aren’t will be instructed.
The book has five chapters, each of which is supplemented by suggestions for further reading on its topic. The first circles around the definitional question: What is queer theology? The second differentiates queer theology from the activity of defending queer lives and views from attack by (often Christian) opponents; those defensive activities, Tonstad thinks, have their importance, but don’t get to what’s truly significant about queer theology, and so they’re given short, programmatic shrift here. The third addresses sex and gender in the variety of ways in which they’re understood in queer theory and theology, with special attention, mostly approving, to critiques of essentialism and naturalization – rejection of essentialist versions of queer theory is a hallmark of the book, and a good one. The fourth is largely a treatment, again mostly approving, of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s (1952-2009) theological/theoretical project. And the fifth, “queer theologies to come,” sketches, via summaries of current work, avenues along which queer theology shows signs of developing. (I’m especially delighted to see here a positive treatment of Geoffrey Rees’s The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (2011), an under-appreciated and very good book; that Tonstad likes it too suggests the delicious possibility that queer theology in at least one of its forms might be a kind of Jansenism – that Pascal might, in heaven, meet Althaus-Reid in passionate embrace.) There’s also a good index, a thorough bibliography, and, so far as I can see, only two typos and one error in Latin. The i-s are dotted and the t-s crossed, therefore, which is not something any longer reasonably to be expected in printed books.
Tonstad’s book is, in intent and structure, a vade mecum, and a good one, so far as I can tell. I don’t treat it as such in this review, however, partly because I’m not equipped to judge its expository parts (I’ve read only about one-quarter of the texts listed in the bibliography), but also because I don’t much care about them. Instead, I pay the book the compliment of treating it as a theological treatise in its own right – Tonstad self-identifies as “a Christian theologian who works in queer theory as well,” and so it seems reasonable, at first blush, to treat it so. It’s also the case that Tonstad isn’t shy about showing her readers what she likes in queer theology and queer theory, and what she doesn’t, and so the normative lies close to the surface of her text, whether she’d like the word or not. That’s another reason for treating the book as a repository of positions and arguments to be engaged, even though its first intent is to provide a summary of and guide to the positions and arguments of others.
Fundamental to the entire book is the question of sex and gender, and their extension into the broader question of identity. Suppose we take those first two terms in their now ordinary acceptation, according to which “sex” labels matters that have to do with the flesh – its form, its chromosomes, and so on – and “gender” labels matters having to do with style and presentation – “a stylized repetition of acts,” as Judith Butler long ago put it. Tonstad and her interlocutors mostly so take them, though there are variances of emphasis. Hair- and dress-styles are matters of gender on this understanding, while breasts and Adam’s apples are matters of sex. Tonstad’s view of both, and that of one family of her queer-theoretical interlocutors, is that there are no sortals in either category that pick out natural kinds, where “natural kind” means a species whose boundaries are sharp (no individual straddles the boundary) and clear (there are necessary and sufficient conditions for membership) in the orders of both being and knowing. “Man” (male human) and “woman” don’t do that; “gay” and “straight” don’t do that; and neither do any of the sortals in the LGBTQIA … list. There is, that is, on this family of views, neither man nor woman, neither gay nor straight, neither trans nor cis, and so on. Not, anyway, if these sortals are taken to label natural kinds. Tonstad thinks, so far as I can tell, that this is so, and, with two reservations to be expressed in a moment, so do I and so should all Christians. It’s not accidental that I just echoed Galatians 3:28. Anti-essentialism on these matters, together with its correlate, denaturalization of what are often taken to be the natural markers of such putative essences or natural kinds, joins, or should join, Christians and queer theorists of the right stripe against queer-theory essentialists and activists (there are, sadly, still too many of these, and they can be violent in defense of their essentialisms), and their Christian correlates (of whom ditto). Tonstad is excellent on all this.
Before giving and arguing for the reservations I’ve mentioned, though, it’s important to deny what’s often (though not, I think, by Tonstad) taken to be a correlate of the anti-essentialism just mentioned. It is that if there aren’t any natural kinds labeled by these terms, we should forthwith stop using them. That of course doesn’t follow. Language is replete with words that no one (I hope) takes to label natural kinds. Most, perhaps all, artifactual nouns (“piano,” “oil painting,” “novel,” “whisk”) are like this. Are there items in the world appropriately so called? Well, yes, at the moment. There weren’t always, though; and there probably won’t always be. And, the criteria that make it appropriate to call something any one of these terms are loose and fuzzy, which is only a problem if you think they should be otherwise. But we can make and use well-formed sentences in English with these words in them, just as we can with sentences using such words as “man” and “woman.” What we can’t do, if the anti-essentialist and denaturalized families of position are right, is go on to ask what these terms denote really. (I’m reminded here of Wittgenstein’s allergy to eigentlich – roughly, “really” – in the philosophy of language, which is a precursor to anti-essentialist queer theory on these matters, surprisingly not lively for those theorists.) Non-natural-kind sortal nouns, which is maybe all of them, denote just and only what users of the languages in which they’re used agree to call by them, and that is always changeable, changing, and, more or less, disputed. So also for “gay,” “straight,” “trans,” (perhaps not “trans*,” though, which is among Tonstad’s terms of art; more on that in a moment) and “cis.”
Now the reservations. First, Tonstad and her interlocutors do not, so far as I can tell, make much, perhaps nothing at all, of the common-sense distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing. What something is (order of being) and what we know about or of it (order of knowing) ordinarily aren’t the same. It may be that every even number greater than two can be expressed as the sum of two primes (order of being); but I don’t know whether it’s so, and neither, so far as I can tell, does anyone else (order of knowing). Similarly, even though it’s the case that in the order of knowing we should be anti-essentialists with respect to almost all (I’m going to suggest two exceptions in a moment) sortal nouns with respect to human kinds, it doesn’t immediately follow from this that we should be so in the order of being. What does follow is that our default position should be anti-essentialism in the order of being unless there are defeaters to that position. The burden of proof lies on those who’d show that some or another sortal does pick out a natural kind, and it’s a heavy one. That is: I’m a firm anti-essentialist in that I think, for instance, that there are no gay people and no straight people (no zebras, either), and that’s for two principal reasons: first, because I lack access to the criteria I’d need for discriminating members of one kind from members of another were they natural kinds; and second, because I have no independent reasons for thinking that there are natural kinds in these cases – and plenty for thinking there aren’t, many of which Tonstad rehearses, elegantly.
But none of that means there mightn’t be natural kinds. In order reasonably to think there are, though, I’d need some reasons additional to a look at states of affairs in the world, linguistic and other. I’d need, that’s to say, revelation or something like it – what Richard Rorty used to be fond, disparagingly, of calling a skyhook. And, as a Christian, I think I have it for at least two natural kinds. I mean those labeled by the nouns “Jew” and “Christian.” These sortals, interestingly, get only passing attention, if that, by Tonstad and her interlocutors. I take it to be proper to Christian discourse to say that human creatures are divided into three kinds: Jewish ones (some of whom are also Christian: they’re the baptized who’ve become Jewish by conversion), Christian ones (some of whom are also Jewish: they’re Jews who’ve gotten baptized), and the rest, for whom a sortal with good precedent is “pagan.” (There are real questions for Christians about Islam, and therefore about the sortal “Muslim”; I prescind here from arguing any view about those interesting difficulties.) One way of putting this view is to say that human flesh comes in three kinds, which are really distinct, distinct in the order of being: Jewish, Christian, and pagan. Baptism in the triune name makes non-Christian flesh into Christian flesh; matrilineal descent, perhaps, brings Jewish flesh into being, with some riders about conversion-rites (I’ve no standing to say anything normative about Jewish flesh because I’m not a Jew); and the rest is pagan flesh. If any of that is right, then there are at least three natural-kind sortal terms for human beings.
You likely won’t think it right if you don’t think it properly belongs to Christian discourse to say it, or if you don’t care what belongs to Christian discourse to say. But I am a Christian, I think it does belong properly to Christian discourse to say this, and so I think that there are at least these three sortals with respect to human identity that have natural-kind purchase in the order of being. It’s of course true that I can’t always tell, when faced with some particular human flesh, which kind it belongs to; there are as many problems about this, epistemically speaking, as there are about figuring out whether this person facing me is gay or straight. But that doesn’t alter the order-of-being claim. It’s just another illustration of the commonplace separation between the two orders.
A brief comment on one of the things that follows, for Christian discourse, if it’s denied that “Jew” and “Christian” are natural-kind sortals in the order of being: supersessionism and, therefore, one or another kind of antisemitism. Denying the natural-kind-in-the-order-of-being purchase of “Jew” and “Christian” evacuates at least the idea of election, and makes, therefore, the relation of Christianity to Judaism inessential. That’s one of the hallmarks of supersessionism, and I suspect that queer theology tends toward that family of views. Christology is also evacuated, though in a different way; and baptism as a flesh-transforming (at least) act and event recedes. These are major revisionist moves, and in my judgment, at least, they take those who make them outside the sphere of Christian discourse.
Why is there this tendency in queer theology? It’s because, I suspect (and Tonstad’s approving treatment of Althaus-Reid is strong evidence for this), that such theologians are strongly attracted to theorizing first in universal mode, about human-beings-as-such and the like, and only subsequently, if then, to attending to the particularities of Christian discourse. There’s a lot of talk about “the real” and “the authentic” in Althaus-Reid and Tonstad, and those are largely identified with the fleshly lives of particular people. This way of thinking is in one way particularist (it’s about particular people), and in another way not (it’s about all of them, concerned with truths that apply to all of them). What it isn’t, emphatically not, is sympathetic to traditions of reasoning about human creatures that distinguishes them into kinds in such a way as to make some of them more intimate with the LORD of Christian and Jewish confession than others. Hence the implicit (sometimes explicit) rejection of the Jewishness of Jesus and the non-negotiability of the election of Abraham on the part of so many queer (and womanist and feminist) theologians. Tonstad, to do her credit, is aware of this problem. It surfaces at one place in this book, though unsatisfactorily, and she has written about it elsewhere – whether satisfactorily or not I don’t (yet) know. It is true, however, that her advocacy of open communion – freely offering Christ’s body to all who ask for it – is of a piece with a universalist-theoretical supersessionism. Those who demote baptism also, always as far as I can tell, demote election.
So far I’ve discussed, at no doubt excessive length for a review and quite inadequate length for a full-dress analysis, a reservation about the theological direction in which anti-essentialist queer theologians tend because of their inattention to the order of being/order of knowing distinction. Now, more briefly, a second reservation, about one of the hierarchies often encountered in queer theology, and certainly present in this book: that between the fleshly order, and the order of abstraction. The real, understood as the fleshly order, as already mentioned, is for most varieties of queer theology, including Tonstad’s, elevated hierarchically above the abstract-conceptual order. The matter of theology, on this view, is close to the material ground, and theological abstraction is relegated to a lesser and often something close to demonic position. But why think this? Abstraction is something that human creatures do, as often, perhaps, as we eat and caress and kill. Its products – thoughts, concepts, schemata – are, it seems to me, among the most beautiful things we have to offer. Tonstad is good at producing them. So why demote them in this way? No reason is given, and there isn’t, so far as I can see, any imaginable good reason. Better to affirm the powers of the intellect, such as they are, and avoid the self-referentially incoherent gesture of denying them by using them. This hierarchy – flesh above intellect – needs to go the way of its opposite number – intellect above flesh. Queer theology that’s true to its own best instincts would see this, affirm it, and delight in it. That it doesn’t is, well, a failing. It’s an affine of the queer view that theology might or ought be about everything – about reality, as Tonstad suggests, in approvingly analyzing Althaus-Reid. This evacuates theology of its topic, which is the LORD. It’s an anti-intellectual move.
A third reservation, this one also brief. It’s about normativity. A norm is a carpenter’s square: a device used to assess whether some object in the world is straight (I choose the word carefully), ordered as it should be. You can’t build a bookshelf or a house without one. Queer theologians and theorists worry about norms. Tonstad worries about, and at, them, too. The worries are prompted by the oppressive and violent use of norms, and they’re good worries. Any Augustinian knows that what human creatures do with everything, including norms, is ruin them by deploying them violently. (That’s not all we do with them, but we always do at least that: it’s an outflow of the Fall, and an unavoidable one.) Our norms about, for example, sex and gender, have been and are being thus devastated. No surprises there. The norm-worries, though, lead somewhere interestingly odd: to the position that “queer” and “trans*” might be understood, following thinkers such as Daniel Halperin and Cathy Cohen, as categories of pure positionality. That is, they label nothing (there are no queer or trans* people), but, instead, have the function of addressing and deconstructing-undermining-evacuating normative genderings. So using “trans*,” marked typographically in this way in part to indicate its anti-essentialist positional function, attempts to transcend normativity, to throw out the carpenter’s square and yet build a livable house. It can’t be done. Pure positionality, if it’s possible, is itself a norm: the queering square it sets against the world is that of constant revolution (Marx has a significant part to play in Tonstad’s thought), and those who don’t match up (the sex-and-gender-and-race essentialists, for example) are either straightened up by it, or discarded. That’s strong normativity. I wish that Tonstad were more self-conscious, and confessional, about it.
Well. There’s more to say. It’s a short book, full of good things as well as (what seem to me to be) the confusions and difficulties I’ve mentioned. I’ll conclude with a litany of the book’s lovelinesses: it is indeed not the case that figuring out which sexual acts are licit is of central importance to Christianity; it is indeed, and importantly, the case that apologetic arguments in favor of this or that stance toward some or another caress or act lack the theological depth and interest that a queering of worldly identities offers; it is indeed the case that “lived or reproductive heterosexuality belongs … to the order of fallen creation,” and a constant surprise that more Christians don’t remember it; it is indeed the case that the search for finality with respect to identity here below inevitably fails, and that this point applies equally to heteronormativists and queer essentialists; and, to quote the book’s concluding words: “Here, we run into an irresolvable dilemma, a question about how to understand the orientation of a life lived under the shadow of death. That question is the question of Christianity, and the question of queerness too.” Yes. It is.
Paul Griffiths was born in England in 1955, and lived there until 1980. He has mostly lived in the US since then, and was naturalized in 1994. He held professorial positions at various American universities from 1983-2018, and was most recently Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University from 2007-2018. He has written many books and essays, the most recently-published book being Christian Flesh (Stanford University Press, 2018). He is now retired from academic life, and is at the moment working on two books – one, tentatively called Otherwise, on the nature of regret; and the other on Pascal.